“Your money or your life?” Which would you choose? “Life”, I’m sure most would say. But that’s not really how most people live.
Once upon a time, economic writers and financial pundits decided to use the metrics of ‘income’ and ‘economic growth’ to measure the standards of living of people all over the world. It also became the way in which we defined words like “Prosperity”, “Wealth” and even “Happiness”.
Subscribing to this line of thinking can have its potential costs, including the ‘nine-to-five-until-retirement’ proposition, or working multiple jobs to survive. An alternative however, is to take a more pragmatic, considered approach to what would actually make your life better.
Essentially, we want to shift from comparing ourselves to others and rather consider our real needs and desires.
There is no denying that increased levels of income and wealth have been shown to lead to increases in indicators used to measure the quality of one’s life, but there are also contrasting studies that will show that citizens of less developed countries with much lower income levels are just as happy, if not happier than their first-world counterparts.
This crossroad in the search for prosperity or wealth generally manifests into two rival viewpoints in personal finance literature.
The “Squirrel-it-away” option
The first is that to increase savings and generate wealth, you need to spend less than you earn. Through engineering your finances into an outcome resulting in a regular surplus, you are able to save. Saving leads to accumulation, and wealth is accomplished over time. This is largely an exercise in mathematics and presupposes that wealth is defined or measured in monetary terms.
The “You-are-not-a-squirrel” option
The alternative is to establish new levels of consciousness around money; to learn how to distinguish between the essentials and excess in all areas of your life and how to unburden yourself from these old road-maps of money. In so doing you may realise that wealth is better approached from a more philosophical point of view, which is perhaps best left for you to define.
So what is money to you?
This second approach is very well discussed in a book entitled ‘Your Money or Your Life’. It challenges you to discover your new relationship with money. You are called to examine those basic assumptions about money that you might have unconsciously adopted over the years. Things such as spending more than you earn, needing two salaries to make ends meet and being so confused about money that you hire experts to handle it for you.
Your Money or Your Life challenges you to reach a state of financial independence; independence from self-defeating financial beliefs and debt, and attain a level of financial independence that is ‘enough’ for you.
By becoming financially independent, you’ll also achieve a level of freedom at a psychological level, and you’ll no longer have to buy your way through life.
Related: Money confessions and action plans
How we store work and spend fun
The title of the book really begins to makes sense when you’re asked to put paid employment into perspective. Given our finite allotment of time on earth, choosing to work ‘nine to five’ is a trade we make; a portion of our time on earth traded for money. This step aids you in appreciating that money is something that we choose to trade our life for when we engage with employment in the traditional sense.
Take a moment to think about that one. Money is something you choose to trade a portion of your time on earth for.
The book helps you understand, possibly for the first time, what your relationship with money is truly like. The exercises expose how your perception of money and wealth might have been warped over time.
The real substance of the book is the nine steps. We won’t go through all the steps in this article, but the chapters of the book that we feel would be most valuable for you to read are the first three.
Related: Why do we spend?
How much have your earned, and what do you have to show for it?
Chapter one requires you to make an estimate of all the money you have ever earned and account for it relative to the assets you now own and thus you are guided to an understanding of your relationship with money. Your experience may be one of excess and clutter without anything meaningful to show for your prior income, or alternatively you might have found a happy medium, balancing spending with the peak of fulfilment; knowing what is clutter and excess, and what is truly necessary.
What IS money, to you?
Chapter two is about achieving a higher level of sophistication about money, through discovering your financial psychology. Maybe money is a source of security for you, or a testament to your power; real or perceived. Depending on our communities and upbringing, you may see money as a form of social acceptance – that old adage of having to keep up with the Joneses.
Where is your money, and where is it going?
The last part of chapter two and three deals with keeping track of every cent that you make and spend. It offers a ‘no shame, no blame’ mantra and encourages you to confront the truth about the choices that you’ve been making regarding money. Lastly, it helps you to monitor and track your monthly spending in the form of an unconventional budget.
The book is not about frugal living and growing home vegetable gardens. It won’t tell you how to make your own laundry detergent and there are no work-from-home ideas. It is about arriving at an honest account of your financial situation and appreciating what elements of your behaviour allowed you to get there.
We recommend that you read this book as it successfully presents money as a means to an end and not as an end in itself. With money presented as a means to achieve outcomes that are based on your values, your relationship with money, earning it and managing it, can be more purpose-driven. Fair to say nobody can tell you what your purpose is. That’s for you to decide.
Figure out how to save more money, or figure out how to use it better
Engaging in the pure mathematical approach to building wealth may not always be under your control. You may have limited means to reduce spending, and likely less chance to increase your income in the short term. Considering a more thoughtful approach to wealth and your relationship with money is, however, always available to you and does not cost a thing.
How you choose to approach your connection with money is ultimately up to you, but you would be naïve to think that you haven’t and won’t continue to be influenced by external factors; conscious or unconscious. To truly make the best decisions with your money, you should do so with full information. This can only be achieved by investigating just how unhealthy your relationship with money might have become.
The destination is more important than the journey
There are plenty of ways to create wealth and value, and all of the ethical and legal ones are valid. You can generate wealth at any pace and in any way; as long as you create enough for you to live the life you really want.
You don’t have to become a financial analyst, and you don’t want to be a squirrel, working constantly to bury acorns for winter, but then forgetting where half of them are.
You will probably be best served by finding a comfortable middle-ground, where you now make educated and researched decisions about where you invest your money, and also recognise the need for a store of monetary value for your future needs.
At the same time you should consider and redefine what it is that you really need.
So what’s the alternative to financial enlightenment?
A drawn-out battle to make ends meet every month, which upon reflection seems to have lasted for as long as you’ve earned a salary?
What about a mountain of debt accumulated over the years, having bought items that you had hoped would bring a sense of fulfilment but never did, and are now likely worth a lot less than what you paid for them?
We seem to have a terrible habit of debt and the 2019 Old Mutual Savings and Investment Monitor has some very interesting statistics on this. Given that for many South Africans every day is a desperate struggle for survival, these study results make sense. It is easy to talk about abstaining from potentially financially destructive behaviour when one has disposable income and the luxury of having choices to make.
The fundamental concept that you’d ultimately do well to both realise and appreciate is that money is a tool; an appliance or a device to get a job done. It is not an end in itself. Having said that though, half of South Africans would not necessarily agree with us, as the study reveals that approximately 50% of the respondents felt that “being rich” was a priority to them.
Money is stored effort
When used wisely, money is a tool that enables you to buy time or convenience, or a tool that can be applied towards one’s goals. For times when there is no immediate need for convenience to be acquired or for goals to be worked towards, money acts as a great store of future consumption. Money stored now allows you to not have to work in the future, and rather use stored effort of today, to pay for the convenience or a service later on.
Warren Buffett * (arguably one of the greatest investors of the 20th century) once shared his views on his vast wealth. He likened it to an enormous collection of ‘claim cheques’ against society, each with the ability to convert into consumption by getting someone else to one day perform a task for him. His focus is to ensure that those ‘claims’ against whoever was going to perform his desired tasks, would ultimately lead to value being created. He did not choose to spend them on material items. His values and views on money dictated that he apply his wealth and future spending to something productive for society, like medical research or education.
Start at the beginning, right at the beginning
Starting on your journey to get your financial house in order can best be achieved with a solid foundation. Knowing what money means to you gives all your future finance actions purpose and you’ll find greater motivation in the choices you make. You may not initially be able to arrive at a solid answer for this introspection, but by igniting this consciousness and asking these questions of yourself, you’re choosing to learn more, which is already a move to a more conscious place.
If you are able to get a copy of the book, focus on chapters 1 – 3. Do the exercises and re-read if needed.
Get the basics right. Understand what money means to you.
* Warren Buffet has repeatedly voiced his wishes that his children not inherit his circa USD 55 billion fortune rather that all his wealth be allocated to charities.